Hunger on the Rise: Multiple Responses Needed

15% of Americans are now keeping their families fed each month with help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  That’s over 45 million people, or almost 1 out of every 7 folks you pass on the street each day.  Those are big numbers so it’s no surprise that everyone from Wolf Blitzer to NPR’s Marketplace noticed and reported on them last week.

Sadly, the relative size of those numbers is nothing new.  In fact, May marked the 31st consecutive month in which the number of people participating in SNAP nationwide set an all-time record. Statistics tell their own important part of the story, but let’s be honest, for most they are distant and impersonal.  What these statistics are really talking about are the number of mothers who could not afford to feed their children, the number of families who did not have enough food in their refrigerators, and the reality that right now many people just don’t have enough money in their bank accounts to buy food and keep the lights on.  Behind the data and the policy there are always people – people with names, and faces and stories who are worried about having enough food for their families to eat.

Here in Georgia, the trends in SNAP participation aren’t encouraging either. Statewide, 18.5% of Georgians received food stamps in May, almost 1.8 million people.  Here in the Peach State, we are getting dangerously close to a world in which every fifth person is holding off the immediate threat of hunger only with financial help from the federal government.  Whether presented personally or impersonally, these numbers starkly illustrate the monthly, daily reality of hunger for millions across our nation, our state, and often without our knowing it, our neighborhoods.  Given this reality, the importance of safety net programs like SNAP, which are designed to perform exactly as they are doing in times of economic decline, should be self-evident.  Hunger is a multi-faceted problem that requires multi-faceted solutions. Food stamps are one such crucial solution and a major reason why we continue to devote resources to helping Georgians access these benefits through our Atlanta Prosperity Campaign.

These programs work hand in hand with our core mission of emergency food distribution, and so it is not surprising that our own distribution trends mirror the trends of food stamp participation.  In the chart below you can see how the amount of food we have distributed to our partner agencies (in pounds) tracks closely to the rise in the number of people receiving food stamps over the last 17 months. 

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Driven by rising demand for food in the communities that they serve, our partner agencies have been distributing more and more food to the hungry people that show up at their doors each day.  

These two solutions, federally funded food stamps and the emergency food distribution of our 700 nonprofit partners, intersect in the lives of many of the hungry people across Metro Atlanta and North Georgia.  For fiscal year 2010, the average monthly SNAP benefit that a household in Georgia received was $313.  It’s not an insignificant amount of money, but in the continuing economic decline there are more and more areas of the family budget that need “supplementing” - not just food. Families are increasingly relying on SNAP to provide a larger portion of their grocery spending because they are having to divert larger portions of their income to keep the air conditioner running, to pay for health care, and to keep that old car running just a little bit longer. 

What happens when both budgets and benefits have been stretched as far as they can go?  As our own distribution trends demonstrate, more and more families are visiting their local food pantry to “supplement” the “supplement.”  Our partner agencies report that for many of their clients, they are being called upon to provide a greater portion of their monthly food supply than ever before. This is in addition to the growing number of working poor that are visiting them each month - families and individuals who make too much money to qualify for food stamps. Like everyone else they have been pulled down by the economic tide, and having exhausted the generosity of their friends and family, are often turning for the first time to their local food pantry to find help.

The pressure that this rise in demand, coming as it is from both above and below the poverty line, is placing on our network of partner agencies and emergency food providers is significant, and given the recent and upcoming discussions of where, when and how deep to cut the federal budget, it is worth pausing to consider what would happen to hungry families if funding for federal nutrition programs was targeted and that $313 a month was significantly slashed.  Where would those families turn?  How much more strain can our own network of food pantries and soup kitchens tolerate? 

Here are two things that you can do to help guarantee that we will not be faced with the potentially negative outcomes of those questions.  First, I encourage you to stay interested and informed about the potential impact of the ongoing budget discussions on hunger relief programs and how you can take action to ensure their continued support.  The Food Research and Action Center is a great place to start.  Remember that in doing so we are all increasingly listening, learning and speaking for our neighbors, our friends and our family.  Second, if you would like to make an investment in the continued strength of ACFB’s hunger relief network serving families throughout Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, consider making an online donation by visiting our website.

Jon West
Research and Development